Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.


Dearie, do you remember:
Girls Clothing in the 1930's and How It Was Cleaned

by Helen Steeves Jull

Dearie, do you remember what
You wore as a little kid?
And exactly what someone did,
To make it clean?
[1]

That old Bing Crosby song "Dearie" came to mind as I was helping a five-year-old granddaughter tidy up her clothes. The colours! And the materials! And the numbers of outfits!

I don't ever remember wearing scarlet red, Kelly green, nor shiny gold, nor having flowered rubber boots. In the 1930s, I do remember navy blue, beige, pastel colours - and clumpy galoshes.

Where could I refresh my memory and confirm images that danced through my mind? Or were they only fantasies?

The Glenbow Archives assisted me in researching a fascinating wealth of information on various aspects of my interest in children's clothing. I discovered early 1900 books on changing attitudes towards children and therefore to their clothing, actual Eaton's catalogues from the 1930s, and much more.

The Glenbow Archives provided answers to questions I had not even thought to pose!

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click image to expand: Children's "Me-Do" underwear, Eaton's Spring and Summer Catalogue, 1937, p. 55. (Glenbow Library) [5]

To put things in context, my Dad was a dentist, one of the 244 that served an Alberta population of 780,000 in 1935 [2], and he probably made about $225 a month [3]. Even if that amount was more than many Calgarians earned, I do remember going to a small farm adjacent to the Calgary Golf and Country Club entrance, where he was given two chickens and some eggs as payment from a satisfied patient. I remember being astounded that at one moment the chickens were walking around, then caught, had their necks wrung, and were in a bag for us to take home. Since my Dad was a hunter of upland game, plucking and gutting them was no problem for him. As a youngster I did not understand that in the "Dirty Thirties" many professional men were paid for their services in ways other than cash.

Dearie, do you remember when
you were able to
get yourself dressed?
Matching socks were considered best?

In her book Children's Clothes, 1939-70, Alice Guppy tells us that "the value of self-help clothing was being realized as an aid to growing up." [4] Eaton's reflected this trend with their "Me-Do" underwear. Probably the reduction in available helpers in the home was also a factor.

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click image to expand: Warm in wool, the author in 1936 and a similar Blue All-Wool Blanket Set in Eaton's Fall and Winter Catalogue, 1936-37, p.75. (Glenbow Library and Dr. A.C. Steeves, author's private collection) [6]

Winter wear
Then as now, Calgary winters required suitably warm wear. In 1936, I was wrestled into an "All Wool Blanket Set" passed down from my cousin. Legs and arms had to aim correctly to get into it as there was no "give" to the bulky material, nor the snaps on the leggings. Nowadays kids have stretchy, zip-neck, polyester blends, and other more forgiving materials to keep them warm and better able to move.

Party time
Dearie, do you remember when -
"Dressed to the nines"
To a party we'd go,
Patent shoes and curls in a row?

How different birthday parties were, then and now! We were dressed up, "buffed and polished" - silk dresses, white gloves, hot-ironed Shirley Temple curls and, the height of fashion, shiny patent leather shoes. When was the last time you dressed a four-year old in all-silk and got out her white gloves? We had a traditional Happy Birthday layer cake with candles. The number of our guests attending a party was the same as our new age: four friends when we turned four.

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click image to expand: All dressed up, the author in 1937 (left) and a similar Green All-Silk Dress in Eaton's Fall and Winter Catalogue, 1936-37, p. 75. (Glenbow Library and Dr. A.C. Steeves, author's private collection) [7]

By contrast, my granddaughter dons her goalie gloves and heavy hockey gear, joins all her team of players, and they go to the arena to celebrate a birthday with lots of cupcakes afterwards. Different traditions for different decades.

And the current tradition of a take-home "loot bag"? The closest we came to that was when my brother Jack went to a party and came home with four kittens. The hosting mother gave away kittens for prizes at the seven party games. The kittens were named after the Seven Dwarves in the Disney movie. Apparently, Jack was on a winning streak! Three of the prizes promptly went back to their original home and our family kept "Doc". Since everyone knew that all doctors were male, I was astonished and delighted when, several months later, Doc had "his" own litter.

Sports wear
Dearie, life was cheery
in the good old days gone by ...


It is said that wool, wet or dry is able to keep you warm. It can absorb 30% of its own weight of water without feeling wet and cold. My swimsuit must have absorbed more because I was a shivery swimmer at the Upper Hot Springs in Banff in August! Obviously I was not cheery.

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click image to expand: Helen found her woolen swimsuit "cool" at the Upper Hot Springs in Banff, Alberta, 1937. (Dr. A.C. Steeves, author's private collection)

Helen found her woolen swimsuit "cool" at the Upper Hot Springs in Banff

Laundry day
To keep the family clothes clean, my Mum had an electric washing machine, an impressive beast-in-the-basement to my childish eyes, but helpful to her. In the Eaton's Spring and Summer Catalogue , 1939, both electric and gasoline washing machines were available. The electric one was $58.95, if you could pay cash, or you could make a cash deposit of $5.90, then make ten monthly payments of $5.86. That totaled $64.50. [8]

As advertised, it did have the green and cream finish I can still remember. It stood next to a large sink with hoses attached to hot and cold water taps. On Monday, washing day, the machine would be filled, soap added, clothes added and then the lever pushed which caused the agitator to create lots of sloshing noises and bubbles. The lid would be put on and it would slosh back and forth until my Mum remembered to go down the basement and stop it. The procedure was repeated for the rinsing. To help whiten appropriate clothing, a little cube of "blueing" encased in cloth was sloshed around, by hand, in the rinse water.

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click image to expand: Gas and electric washing machines, Eaton's Spring and Summer Catalogue, 1939, p. 208. (Glenbow Library)

Then she lifted the heavy, wet clothes and put them through the rubber rollers of the wringer. She warned me away from sticking inquisitive fingers anywhere near that process because, if a hand got caught in a sheet it could be moved towards the wringer and possibly squashed. The lever shown sticking up on the top right of the wringer was called an instantaneous safety release (or a "panic bar") that could be hit to disengage the rollers and save fingers from injury.

When washing was all done, the tap on another hose, on the side of the machine near the bottom, would be opened and water would pour out onto the floor, swirl around and disappear down the nearby drain in the basement floor.

After things had been through the wringer, she'd load them into a laundry basket and carry them upstairs to the back porch. Then she would clothes-peg them on to the clothes line, which was hauled across the back yard with pulleys.

In winter, when she pulled them back into the porch, many of them were still frozen stiff. My dresses and my Dad's shirts looked like large versions of the paper doll clothes that I played with. She would haul in many "board feet" of sheets and bend them in to the clothes basket to take them back down to hang on wire clothes lines attached to the wooden rafters of the basement ceiling to finish drying. I still remember the wonderful fragrance of fresh frozen laundry.

Tuesday was ironing day. I don't remember whether Mum had an ordinary iron or a fancier one that had a heat indicator. However, I do know that she did the job. No automatic washer, no drier at all, nor wash-and-wear fabrics for her.

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click image to expand: Reminder to consumers about Alberta Government 2% Sales Tax, Eaton's Winter Catalogue, 1936-37. (Glenbow Library)

Sales Tax
In a recent National Post article, journalist Jen Gerson wrote, "Alberta has no provincial tax. It's both a point of pride and a totem of the province's uniqueness [9]. I grew up with this pride and, so far as I knew, Alberta had never had a sales tax. However, during my research in the Glenbow Archives, in the Eaton's Winter Catalogue 1936-37, inserted between pages 4 and 5, I was astounded to find this notice:

I found this information was supported by a separate historical account: "Under the 1936 Retail Sales Tax Act a 2% sales tax was imposed on retailers" by the Social Credit government of Premier William Aberhart. [10] You never know what you'll find at the Glenbow!

Do you remember, well if you remember,
Then Dearie, you've a better memory than I.

Photographs of Helen by her father Dr. A. C. Steeves


Footnotes

[1]
"Alternate" lyrics by Helen Steeves Jull parody the song "Dearie," music by David Mann, original lyrics by Bob Hilliard.
[2]
MacLean, H.R. History of Dentistry in Alberta, 1880-1980. Edmonton: Alberta Dental Association, 1987. p. 273.
[3]
Eighth Census of Canada, 1941, Volume VI, Earnings ,Employment and Unemployment of Wage Earners, Table 7. This table indicates that there were 3 male and 1 female dentists in Calgary; the average earnings for the male dentists were $2,667 and for the female were $2,800. The previous census, done in 1931, does not provide as precise a figure, unfortunately.
[4]
Alice Guppy (1978). Children's Clothes, 1939-70. Worthing, UK: Littlehampton Book Services Ltd. p. 19.
[5]
Eaton's (1937). Spring and Summer Catalogue, p. 55.
[6]
Eaton's (1936-37). Fall and Winter Catalogue, p. 75.
[7]
Eaton's (1936-37). Fall and Winter Catalogue, p. 75.
[8]
Eaton's (1939). Spring and Summer Catalogue, p. 208.
[9]
Jen Gerson (September 24, 2013). "Why Alberta introducing a sales tax is about as unlikely as a balanced budget", National Post. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/09/24/why-alberta-introducing-a-sales-taxis-about-as-unlikely-as-a-balanced-budget
[10]
David G. Bettison, John K. Kenward, and Larrie Taylor (1975). Urban Affairs in Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. p.78.

About the author

Calgary born Helen Steeves Jull has been writing since junior high school for the Calgary Herald, radio, TV, and her own magazine, Jet Publications in the 1980s. She enjoys photography and kite flying around the world. Through the Calgary Association of Lifelong Learners, she learned to flambe, learned about Calgary artists, became a volunteer with the Glenbow's Stories from the Archives project, sampled their "Aladdin's Cave" of resources, then wrote this piece about Eaton's catalogues and her childhood.

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